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I learned that ziemlich means "quite, rather" and ganz means "whole, entire." but I just encountered this tweet:

ganz leichter Schneefall. sehr dekorativ.

My dictionary agrees that ganz can also mean "quite." So now I'd like to know what differences, if any, there are in usage between ziemlich and ganz?

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Eine ziemlich / ganz gute Frage. – Em1 Feb 7 '12 at 15:23
Ganz großes Kino / ziemlich großes Kino :-) – Hendrik Vogt Feb 13 '12 at 15:24
@HendrikVogt Can you explain the difference? I'm clearly missing out on the joke here. :) – user2013 Feb 13 '12 at 22:21
@Arthaey: Sorry, it was kind of a bad joke. Ganz großes Kino is a figure of speech and expresses that someone put on a great show. It is also used to describe someone who magnificently failed to accomplish some task. Ziemlich großes Kino is just a big cinema. – Hendrik Vogt Feb 14 '12 at 7:41

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think, there's little difference, when using ganz or ziemlich. Ganz is a little bit stronger than ziemlich, but there isn't much space in between meaning. Most time the difference is vague and indecisive. I think most people will use them spontaneously equally without seeing any difference, though they know/feel a difference subconsciously.

In the end, it's like comparing very and quite in English. Very is more intense and similar to extremely. Quite add strength as well but is less powerful. Compare very[=extremely] heavy snowfall vs quite heavy snowfall. The tricky thing is that ganz can also share the meaning with pretty, fairly as in pretty good or fairly difficult [=to some extent but not very].

First things first:

Mir geht es ganz schlecht.
Mir geht es ziemlich schlecht.

This first sentence means, that I am feeling very sick. I am not able to do anything and I just want to stay in bed.
In the latter I am also in a weak constitution, i.e. not healthy. I am feeling sick, but I am able to do the most necessary work (I can go to the grocery store, but though I wish someone else would do).

Another example:

Du bist ein ganz starker Gegner.
Du bist ein ziemlich starker Gegner.

Using ganz means your opponent is very strong and you need much endurance, concentration to beat him. You have to go a high pace, much deceptions, ... Saying sehr starker Gegner, however, sounds much better.
Using ziemlich still means your opponent is good but you are better. It's not easy to beat him, though. You still have to fight, but you can allow yourself doing mistakes and forgive good chances without risking your win.

Regarding your example (but I will turn to the opposite, as it's less common to talk of ganz leichter Schneefall):

Es ist ganz (schön) starker Schneefall.
Es ist ziemlich starker Schneefall.

Aside first: Using also schön sounds better to me. I don't know if it just regional, but in this example I would never omit it. In this case it makes the meaning even more powerful, more intense like very very much. Again, it sounds slightly better to me using sehr starker Schneelfall.

Now what I want to express by saying the first sentence:
Let's imagine the situation that I am driving my car through a heavy snowfall. Then I mean: 'I don't see much'. I have to drive very slowly and carefully. I have to concentrate very much on keeping the lane.
Same situation for the latter one. In that case, I focus on the fact that the snowfall is disturbing, annoying. I still have to drive carefully, but I drive a lot faster because it isn't that dangerous.

Both variation can also stress my astonishment how much snow falls, i.e. that the degree of intensity is more than I expected.

As mentioned above, ganz can also mean the pretty same thing as pretty does:

Das Essen war ganz gut.

In this context, ganz can be translated to pretty, or fairly. It wasn't good but not bad either. It was okay.

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I don't quite agree: Sometimes there is very little difference, yes. But take the example "ganz leichter Schneefall". You emphasize that's it's really little snow. (And I can help but have the connotation "very nice".) "Ziemlich leichter Schneefall" is hardly ever used, and then the context is different: you emphasize that it's not that bad. (See also my comment to the question for another example.) – Hendrik Vogt Feb 7 '12 at 18:07
@HendrikVogt As you mentioned: Ziemlich leichter Schneefall is barely said. I would daresay: Never. If you say ganz leichter Schneefall you stress that it is actual not noteworthy. But saying ziemlich leichter Schneefall you neutralize leicht. And this sounds odd. – Em1 Feb 7 '12 at 19:33
@Em1: of course you can also diminish leicht by using ziemlich - only it's not used very often used. Example: "Eine ziemlich leichte Aufgabe" (of course this is not the same than "Eine ganz leichte Aufgabe"). – Takkat Feb 7 '12 at 20:02
@Takkat Good example. ganz leichte Aufgabe -> you can solve it aus dem effeff - ziemlich leichte Aufgabe -> you have to put low effort into it. But note: The meaning of leicht is quite different to the snowfall example (easy vs few) – Em1 Feb 7 '12 at 20:14
Danke für die Situationsbeispiele! Sie machen die Unterschiede klar. – user2013 Feb 7 '12 at 22:53

While I do agree with Em1 that sometimes the difference between ziemlich and ganz is vague and indecisive, I'd like to discuss a few cases where there's quite some difference indeed. (Let me point out that we're only talking about the adverbs here, not ziemlich and ganz as adjectives.)

As you already mention in the question, ganz can mean very or entirely (think of ganz und gar), but it can also mean quite or rather. In your example sentence

ganz leichter Schneefall. sehr dekorativ.

ganz means very. You can't replace ganz with ziemlich here (see also my comment to Em1's answer). Other examples where ziemlich won't work at all:

Bleib' mal ganz locker.  —  Stay cool.
Komm' bitte ganz schnell.  —  Come quickly, please.

(I'm not sure if the ganz should be translated at all in these sentences; its meaning again is very.)

Examples where both ganz and ziemlich are possible

If you say that a dish tastes ziemlich lecker, then usually it tastes better than a dish tasting ganz lecker. The reason is that here the ziemlich reinforces lecker, while ganz weakens it. (I'm not sure if there's an analogous difference between rather tasty and quite tasty.) Other examples where usually ziemlich is used to reinforce and ganz is used to weaken (and where I would translate ganz as quite):

ziemlich gut / ganz gut,
ziemlich nett / ganz nett,
ziemlich interessant / ganz interessant.

But be careful, this depends a lot on the intonation - ziemlich can also be used to weaken an adjective. And I think Em1 is right that some people won't see the difference in these examples.

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Agree. I think it is really hard to get the nuance of ganz. It's a bit indefinite. Your answer is a good complement. – Em1 Feb 13 '12 at 15:53
Eine Reihenfolge zwischen "ziemlich lecker" und "ganz lecker" kann man nicht ausmachen. Es kann so sein, es kann aber auch anders sein, wie Du selbst sagst. Beides hängt von der Betonung ab. – user unknown Feb 13 '12 at 16:06

Ganz means "whole," or "complete." As such, it is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker than ziemlich.

Ich bin ganz krank.: I am "entirely" sick. (Can't do anything.) Versus Ich bin ziemlich krank. (I'm rather sick, but can do some things for myself). Here, ganz is stronger than ziemlich.

Es ist ganz gut. It's "good" (all around, but nothing great). Versus Es ist ziemlich gut. (It is rather good, borders on great.) Here ganz is weaker than ziemlich.

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In general I agree. But I don't think that natives would say Ich bin ganz krank. They would rather say Ich bin total/sehr/ziemlich krank. – Em1 Oct 31 '12 at 22:23
Diese Kommentare machen mich immer ganz krank. – user unknown Oct 31 '12 at 22:28
@Em1: Actually, the original example (from above) was "Mir geht es ziemlich schlecht." I just did a "take-off" on it. – Tom Au Oct 31 '12 at 22:59

The difference is that "ganz" is always 100% where "ziemlich" is something like 90%.

So the snow is 100% or completely "leicht"

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Sicher? Wie war deine Klausur? - Joa, ganz gut. – Em1 Feb 8 '12 at 22:46

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